LIUKU, China—On a roadside next to the Nu River, Xiong Xiangnan is trying to sell fish to tourists. He doesn’t look like a traditional fisherman. Xiong sports a pompadour and wears a brown jacket, jeans, and white Crocs, with a money purse slung across one shoulder. As several of his friends stand around smoking, Xiong makes his pitch.
The fish were very hard to catch, he says. The nets must be set at night and checked early in the morning. That’s why he’s charging 240 yuan—about $37—for the biggest trophy in his buckets.
Behind Xiong, the Nu River flows freely, bumbling with rapids, swirling with eddies. Some of this water has spilled down from glaciers on the Tibetan plateau, filling a channel that snakes 1,700 miles (2,736 kilometers) through China, then Myanmar and Thailand, before spilling into the Andaman Sea.
Xiong is asked about the government’s plans, hatched in 2003, to build hydroelectric dams on the Nu, the last free-flowing river in China. One of these would sit downstream in Liuku, a township of 45,000 people in Yunnan Province, near China’s border with Myanmar.
“We have heard about the dams, many years ago,” responds the 20-year-old farmhand, who catches fish for extra money. “But the government has not approved them yet. We do not think about it very much.”
And what if the Nu is dammed?
“It will pollute the water and hurt the fish,” he says. “It will not be good for us.”
CONSERVATIONISTS HAVE HAD LITTLE TO CELEBRATE amid China’s dam-building boom of the last half century. In the Nu River gorge, they appear to be on the cusp of a rare victory. Yunnan’s provincial secretary recently announced a halt to small hydroelectric projects on tributaries of the Nu. He also advocated the creation of a national park in the region. Many think that announcement signals the shelving of plans for the Nu dams, which would displace thousands of villagers and forever alter the gorge’s natural scenery.
Much has changed since the dams were proposed, says Yu Xiaogang, leader of Green Watershed, an environmental group based in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital. Geologists have documented the threat of earthquakes in the region. China’s anti-corruption campaign has swept up Yunnan officials supportive of the China Huadian Corp., the company planning the dams. Possibly even more influential, new laws are prompting China to consider the full impacts of megaprojects like those proposed for the Nujiang, which means “angry river.”
“I visit the Nujiang every year, and since 2012, I’ve seen the dam company gradually withdraw from the project,” Yu says. “This is the last un-dammed river left,” he adds, which gives it a very large profile.
Known as the Grand Canyon of the East, the Nu River gorge cuts a sinuous course along the Gaoligong Mountains, snowcapped peaks that separate China from Myanmar. The river winds in a horseshoe pattern, as does the narrow road that hugs the steep canyon.
Around every turn are sawtooth rock formations or remnants of the vast forests that once blanketed the mountaintops. Despite heavy cutting of these forests for firewood, this region is home to about half of China’s animal species, including rare wildlife such as the snow leopard and black snub-nosed monkey.
To the east, another jagged mountain range separates the Nu from the Lancang River, China’s name for the Mekong. The two rivers could not be more different.
Whereas the Lancang is slack and dammed at several points, the Nu is untamed and dangerous, with long stretches of white water. The river varies in volume and color depending on the season, taking on a turquoise hue during the dry winter months.
Some five million people live in China’s portion of the watershed, many of them belonging to ethnic minorities such as the Lisu and Dai. It is one of the poorest regions in China. That’s why some people say they’d welcome the construction jobs and improved roads that would come with the dams, if they ever get built.
One of these is Li Guangjin, 37, who spent part of a recent morning trying to sell cuts from a butchered calf in Bingzhongluo, a Nu River village close to the Tibet border. On a dusty street corner, he and his wife unfurled a tarp, displayed the bloody meat on it, and waited for customers.
Li said he was forced to kill his calf because it had seriously injured itself the day before. He supports the dams because of the jobs and development they could bring to the upper gorge, where farmers have trouble making a living.
“It will be good,” says Li, who lives about a kilometer outside of town. “We will have electricity and we can work for the (hydro) company.”
For more than a decade, the Huadian Corp. has attempted to sell the proposed dams with the promise of prosperity. Visitors to Liuku, a gateway town for Nu River tourism, are greeted by company signs in Chinese that read: “Green hydro power, happy Nujiang” and “100 years of development starts here.”
Supporters acknowledge the Nu River dams are now on hold, partly because of China’s current energy glut. But that is sure to change in coming years, says Zhang Boting, senior engineer for China Society for Hydropower Engineering. Future growth, he said, will force China to tap its remaining hydroelectric potential. The country is also under pressure to expand its portfolio of renewable energy to reduce air pollution and meet its international climate change obligations.
“I think the dams will eventually get built,” says Zhang. He adds that many local and provincial officials embrace them for the jobs and tax revenue they could create.
YET IS HYDROPOWER A PANACEA for rural poverty? Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the record has been decidedly mixed.
Over the last six decades, China has constructed more than 80,000 dams. Collectively they generate 300 gigawatts of power—roughly three times what is produced in the United States. But they’ve also uprooted tens of millions of people, including some 1.3 million villagers who were relocated for the Three Gorges Dam, China’s largest hydropower project.
A dozen years after Three Gorges was completed, thousands of displaced people continue to petition the government, saying they were cheated out of promised housing and compensation. Some say they’ve become destitute, forced to leave their farms and businesses.
In 2002, when the Nu River dams were under study, Green Watershed’s Yu invited some villagers to join him on a field trip to the Manwan Dam, on the upper reaches of the Lancang River. There they found people who had been moved to make way for the reservoir living in squalid conditions.
“At one village, people had lost all their land, and they were living off of rubbish collection for the dam company,” Yu says. A video of the field trip shows the Nu River villagers looking visibly alarmed by the living conditions.
Ethnic Lisu villagers attend Easter service at a Protestant church on the bank of the Nu River in Lawu Village.
Lean and animated at age 65, Yu is one of Asia’s leading river conservationists—a David Brower of southern China. He’s spent most of his adult life documenting the impacts of dams and reservoirs, particularly the social consequences to people uprooted. In 2006, he was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his river protection work.
Despite his stature and connections, Yu wasn’t to able to prevent some of the early dislocations caused by the Nu dams. In the mid-2000s, Yunnan and Huadian Corp. started relocating about 140 households from a village named Xiaoshaba to clear the land for one of the proposed projects. The dam was never built, but the ruins of Xiaoshaba are now easy to find, as are some of the people who once lived there.
On a recent day, Li Xuizhen and some of her friends tended a vegetable garden amid the rubble of their old homes, small scythes in their hands. For the last decade, Li has lived with her husband in nearby “New Xiaoshaba,” in a two-story townhouse with no land for gardening or raising farm animals.
Although her family’s housing situation has improved, she is not happy.
“We have nothing to do. We just sit around,” Li says. “So I come over here every day to grow vegetables.”
CHINA'S PLANS FOR TAMING THE NU were launched in an era when hydropower projects—particularly Three Gorges—were monuments of national pride. In 2003, authorities announced the construction of 13 Nu River dams. Supporters claimed that, once built, this cascade of dams would generate more electricity than Three Gorges.
Realities have since intruded. As China’s economy has slowed, demand for power has ebbed. Meanwhile, China is starting to recognize it could get more power from its existing dams before building new ones. Several studies have documented that the country’s hydro plants are not operating as effectively as they could.
China’s electricity grid and its rugged typography are big challenges to building dams on the Nu River. Construction of transmission lines in the mountainous headwaters of the Lancang and Yangtze was difficult and costly.
If the Nu River projects were built, the state agency that controls the grid would need to install transmission lines near or through areas that UNESCO declared a World Heritage site in 2003, just months before the dam proposals were formalized. Known as the Three Parallel Rivers—for the Nu, Lancang and Yangzte—this area is home to 7,000 plant species and 80 rare or endangered animals, some found nowhere else in China, according to UNESCO.
“It would not be easy to get the power out,” says Stephanie Jensen-Cormier, China program director for International Rivers, an environmental group. “The transmission lines would be difficult to build, and the environmental impact would be significant.”
Conservationists say there are there other reasons the Nu River dams have been delayed, if not shelved altogether.
In 2008, a devastating earthquake in neighboring Sichuan Province killed 80,000 people and highlighted the tectonic risks facing infrastructure in southwest China. It also ignited a debate on whether a four-year-old reservoir built near the fault line of the Sichuan quake might have contributed to the temblor.
Three years later, two prominent geologists, Xu Daoyi and Sun Wenpeng, wrote a letter to then-premier Wen Jiabao, warning that dams in the Nu River canyon—where an active fault exists—could be vulnerable to a catastrophic earthquake.
“No fixed steel-and-concrete dam can withstand the shearing movement of the Nu River fault,” the geologists wrote. “Nor can anyone prevent the huge mountainside collapses, landslides, and mudslides that still happen on the banks of the river.”
ON PAPER, CHINA STILL HAS FIVE DAMS PLANNED for the Nu River—one in Tibet, upstream of Bingzhongluo, and four in Yunnan Province. Despite years of study, the Yunnan government has yet to release required environmental reports for the dams. Attempts to interview officials from the provincial government and Huadian were unsuccessful.
Since coming to power three years ago, President Xi Jinping has talked about creating an “ecological civilization,” a seeming repudiation of China’s past assaults on nature. He also has launched a crackdown on government graft, sweeping up thousands of officials, including key proponents of the Nu River dams.
One of these was Bai Enpei, a supporter of hydropower and mining in Yunnan. He served as provincial secretary from 2000 to 2011. In 2014, graft investigators arrested Bai and accused him taking bribes for issuing mining contracts.
Yu says the arrests “have cooled down the ambitions” of Yunnan officials to dam the Nu.
In March, Yunnan Provincial Secretary Li Jiheng announced the ban on new small hydro projects and small mines in the Nu region. He and other officials also signaled support for a national park to stimulate the region’s budding tourism industry.
“The Nu River will become a world-level tourism destination in 5 to 10 years,” Li said on China National Radio, according to reports by state media. “It will succeed, even surpass the Grand Canyon in the United States.”
To Yu and other conservationists, Li’s announcement suggests a critical shift in government policy. Yunnan leaders, he said, are quietly replacing plans for hydropower, big and small, with a blueprint to develop the Nu River as a scenic destination of international significance.
For many in the region, the possibility of dams on the Nu has long stopped being part of their conversations. If anything, it is a distraction from their daily affairs. In the upper end of the gorge, where the hillsides are steep and unsuitable for large-scale farming, villagers supplement their income through tourism ventures, ranging from roadside fruit stands to guesthouses for mountaineers. Farther downstream, where the scenery is less dramatic and the floodplain is wider, farmers grow coffee, tobacco, tomatoes, strawberries, and other high-priced produce.
If the dams were built, some of this agriculture would be lost to rising waters. Tourism would remain, but it would likely be of the “Hoover Dam” variety, not the current small-scale businesses that cater to visiting nature lovers.
Dams or no dams, the Grand Canyon of the East won’t remain secluded for long. Construction crews are busy improving the narrow road that passes through the gorge. In a few years, Chinese motorists will be able to road-trip up it on their way to Tibet, including its capital of Lhasa.
In the town of Dimaluo, in the upper part of the Nu gorge, a musician named Hexi spent part of a recent afternoon in his town square with friends, playing his piwang, a Tibetan fiddle, and rehearsing dances for an upcoming festival. Hexi—who, like many Tibetans, goes by one name—said he lived in Beijing for several years, but returned to Dimaluo for its clean air, rugged scenery and slower pace of life. On his arm is a tattoo in Tibetan that reads: “Pure of heart.”
Hexi says he is relieved to be back in his village, but he recognizes the outside world is gradually following him there. “Everyone dreams of a place like this,” he says.